Proposals for fixing CPS emerge

Jeremy Duda and Gary Grado//December 6, 2013

Proposals for fixing CPS emerge

Jeremy Duda and Gary Grado//December 6, 2013


Some lawmakers say Child Protective Services needs more money. Others say it should become its own agency, separate from the Department of Economic Security. Another cautions against “reactionary legislation” that won’t really solve anything.

There’s no doubt that CPS will be a dominant issue in the upcoming legislative session. Lawmakers are likely to spend much of 2014 trying to fix the troubled agency in the wake of revelations that about 6,500 allegations of child abuse and neglect went uninvestigated.

But the question remains: What can be done that hasn’t been tried before?

Some, such as Gov. Jan Brewer, are taking a wait-and-see approach to potential legislative fixes. Several investigations are underway, and the Governor’s Office is hesitant to start making legislative or budget proposals before it sees the results.

Others, including key lawmakers, are working on concrete proposals, some of which predate the recent scandal at CPS.

Many lawmakers and advocates have renewed their calls for more funding for the agency as well. In September, the Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS, submitted a budget request to the Governor’s Office asking for an additional $212 million next fiscal year, including $4.6 million for CPS’ Office of Child Welfare Investigations, which subsequently discovered the uninvestigated cases.

Now, many are calling for bigger spending increases at CPS. House Democrats urged Brewer to call a special session of the Legislature to address the issue.

Scott Smith, Brewer’s chief of staff, said the governor is hesitant to start creating budget plans or other legislative proposals for CPS until she has more information. The Department of Public Safety is reviewing the uninvestigated cases, as is the Child Advocate Response Examination (CARE) team, a task force that Brewer established to investigate the cases and the CPS system as well.

Smith said the results of those investigations will provide input that Brewer will use to determine CPS’ budget and other potential legislation.

“We don’t have those answers yet,” Smith said. “We are still working through the DES proposal. And then what impacts this situation has on that request I think need to be determined based on what we learn from the CARE team and what we learn from the DPS administrative review. We would expect, with them being involved in this process, that they will see things from a personnel standpoint, an operations standpoint, a process standpoint. We would expect them to bring those to light and, if there are deficiencies, then make recommendations.”

Too big to manage?

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, one of two lawmakers on the CARE team, is wary of what she called “reactionary legislation,” which she said tends to create more problems than it solves. She also questions whether more funding is truly the solution to CPS’ problems. But Brophy McGee has plans for CPS that she was working on before the uninvestigated cases came to light.

One of her proposals would split CPS from DES and make it a separate, independent agency, an idea that has been floated before but was never implemented. She said that would make CPS more transparent and lighten the load for DES, which oversees many other programs.

Making an independent agency out of CPS would likely also prevent recurrences of the problems that led to thousands of cases going uninvestigated, Brophy McGee said.

“I think a lot of the problems we’ve been having have to do with an administrative misalignment or disconnect there,” she said. “Some people have gone to a lack of funding, but I think it is an administrative disconnect, which would indicate there are more systemic issues.”

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, the other lawmaker on the CARE team, also said CPS should be a standalone agency.

“DES is a huge agency. And when you think of all the various entities that are under this umbrella, it comes a time when you have to think, is this just too big to manage?” Landrum Taylor said. “I think it’s time for that conversation to begin.”

Brophy McGee said the new CPS agency should include foster care, child care assistance and preventive services aimed at resolving family problems before they become serious enough to warrant CPS involvement.

Steve Meissner, who spent three years as a communications director at DES, said the agency is simply too large for one director to oversee. He said the agency’s Division of Children, Youth and Families, which includes CPS, foster care and other programs, needs to be a separate agency. That, Meissner said, is why firing DES Director Clarence Carter, which many Democratic lawmakers have called for, won’t solve any of the problems at CPS.

“The truth is, Clarence Carter is too far removed from the real cause of the issue,” said Meissner, who runs the liberal blog Cactus Caucus. “DES directors don’t run DES. It’s run by a cabal … of assistant directors.”

Meissner said a Children, Youth and Families agency should be overseen by an independent panel that includes legislators, child safety experts, foster parents, law enforcement personnel and advocates. And more funding is necessary, he said.

In addition to creating a separate agency, Brophy McGee also supports other changes that could make CPS’ job easier. Brophy McGee said she wants to consolidate reporting requirements to reduce the numerous reports CPS must generate every year, a number that she said exceeds 200. She also said she’d like to see technological improvements that would allow CPS caseworkers to do more of their work from the field rather than the office.

The debate over money

Landrum Taylor, however, said more funding is critical. Caseworkers are overwhelmed, she said, and the state must increase funding for other programs such as preventive services.

Some Republican lawmakers, however, say funding isn’t the problem, and are hesitant to respond to the recent crisis by simply “throwing money” at CPS.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, noted that the Legislature increased funding for CPS in the current fiscal year budget, and said the department has more funding now than it did when the economic downturn hit in 2008.

“It isn’t money that caused this problem, and that’s why I’m saying we need to find out what caused the problem. If you have a training problem or you have any other problem going on right now, why do you think throwing money right into this agency is necessarily the correct response?” Biggs told the Arizona Capitol Times in late November, shortly after the uninvestigated cases came to light.

Other GOP lawmakers keyed in on the fact that the 6,500-plus cases went uninvestigated because workers at the CPS Child Abuse Hotline simply never forwarded them to CPS caseworkers. House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said the problems at CPS are not financial.

“We got more money over there. This problem is systemic,” Tobin said in a Nov. 22 radio interview on the John C. Scott Show.

Rep. John Kavanagh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he won’t rule out funding increases for CPS next year, and acknowledged that some additional staff is needed. But he warned that it’s “seductively easy” to blame the recent woes on funding. Kavanagh said per-case funding is actually above 2008 levels.

“I think there is a culture there that needs to be changed,” said Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “We’ve increased per-case funding since 2008. So while there probably does need to be some additional funding, I don’t think that much more is needed.”

Like Brophy McGee, Kavanagh said the Legislature should eliminate some of the reporting requirements on CPS. He also suggested technological improvements, such as providing caseworkers with tablet computers or laptops. Kavanagh said he would support a proposal to make CPS an independent agency.

But Democratic lawmakers and children’s advocates have stressed the need for more funding, both for caseworkers and other CPS-related programs.

Sen. Anna Tovar, the Senate minority leader, said CPS wouldn’t have had the capacity to deal with all the uninvestigated cases. After all, she said, the division already has a 10,000-case backlog.

“Definitely it is correlated to an overburden on caseworkers,” Tovar, D-Tolleson, said of the uninvestigated cases.

Higher budget, bigger caseloads

The Division of Children, Youth and Families’ budget has increased since 2008. Between state and federal funds, the division’s total budget has jumped from

$134 million to nearly $167 million. But determining exactly how much money goes to CPS is difficult, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

In 2008, CPS had 838 caseworkers, 136 in training and 67 hotline workers. Those numbers dropped significantly over the next two years as the state grappled with its ongoing budget crisis, then started to rise again in 2011. Currently, the department has 932 caseworkers, 204 in training and 75 hotline workers.

But during that timeframe, CPS caseloads have increased dramatically. According to DES, each caseworker’s average caseload has jumped from 45 percent above the optimal level in 2008 to

78 percent in 2014. The number of abuse and neglect reports that CPS receives annually, as well as the number of children in out-of-home placement, has also risen substantially.

Landrum Taylor and Tovar both said funding cuts to preventive services and other programs have led to more CPS cases that could have been avoided. Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of the Children’s Action Alliance, an advocacy group, said CPS has felt the pinch from those cuts.

According to data compiled by the alliance, between the 2009 and 2013 fiscal years, the state cut $68 million for child care subsidies to low income families, reducing the number of families receiving those subsidies to 8,000, down from 29,000 in 2009. The fiscal year 2014 budget included an additional $9 million for the program. The state has also cut $5.2 million from a program that provided support services for children in the CPS system, the alliance said, as well as $10.7 million from Healthy Families, a prevention program for families with children under 5, though some funding was backfilled from other programs.

“We lost pretty much everything during the Great Recession,” Naimark said.

She said it will take a significant amount of money to give those programs the funding they need. But it will save money in the long run, she said.

“We’re talking a total definitely in the tens of millions. What we want to do is create tools and assistance for families … so they never need CPS,” Naimark said.

An overburdened system

And even though the uninvestigated cases were the direct result of administrative problems — hotline workers classified cases as “not investigated,” or NI, which kept them from reaching caseworkers’ desks — Meissner said those missteps were the result of an overburdened system. When CPS can’t handle its caseload, he said, people start looking for ways to cut corners.

“Anybody who says money is not part of the solution is either not paying attention or they can’t handle the truth,” Meissner said. “Unless you do something to reduce those caseloads to a manageable level, people will be forced to look for creative things like, ‘Oh, let’s create a category called NI and stick cases in there if we don’t think there’s any legitimacy to them.’”

Tovar also said the state needs to find a way to reduce the massive turnover rate among CPS employees. Naimark said DES should consider increasing caseworkers’ salaries.

Landrum Taylor, Brophy McGee, and Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, all members of the Legislature’s CPS Oversight Committee, got plenty of input Dec. 3 from people inside the system at a two-hour community forum on CPS, although the speakers who took short turns at the microphone addressed issues related to the entire realm of areas under the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

“What I heard tonight is the system isn’t working because it is overwhelmed,” McCune Davis said.

The common thread of the forum, attended by about 320 activists and foster parents, was to put more money into preventing child abuse and helping overwhelmed caseworkers.

Chuck Jones, a retired CPS worker, said injuries on a child are an obvious sign of a problem, but prevention is harder to measure.

“This is about dollars,” Gray said.

Barbara Fenster, who runs a nonprofit and works with foster children, said the Legislature needs to reprioritize money it has been putting away in a rainy-day fund.

“It’s past a rainy day, it’s now a hurricane,” Fenster said.

Gordon Hall, a former CPS worker for 14 years, said the Legislature needs to open its pocketbook for more caseworkers and better pay for them for retention.

He said large caseloads make it impossible for caseworkers to make the required number of visits to make sure children are safe.

He also called for a change in the judicial system to do away with wasted time of CPS workers. He remembered much of his time was spent killing time in court as he waited for cases he was involved in to be called.

“You see CPS workers sitting there for hours,” Hall said. “I had a book, because when I go to court I’m going to be sitting there and I’m going to read, and I did that a lot on government dollars.’’

Several foster parents also expressed their frustration at the system.

Vicki Reese, a foster parent since 1998, said too much emphasis is placed on parental rights and not protecting the best interests of the child, and foster parents need to be given more of a role in the team of professionals that assess cases.

“We are the eyes and the ears and the voice of these children,” Reese said.